The latest round of A Level results appears to show that girls are becoming even more wary of science and technology subjects than before. Here Joy Kent of Chwarae Teg argues why it’s vital this trend is reversed.
But don’t imagine for one minute that gender stereotyping has disappeared.
When it comes to career choices, the belief that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be girls,’ has lost some of its potency over recent years, as women make their mark in virtually all traditionally ‘male’ walks of life, from engineering and construction to the emergency services and armed forces.
By Joy Kent, Chwarae Teg Chief Executive. Follow on Twitter: @joy_chwaraeteg.
In a sophisticated modern economy, women have shown that no occupations are off limits to them and, in certain fields previously dominated by men, for example the police, the presence of women at all levels has become completely normal.
But don’t imagine for one minute that gender stereotyping has disappeared. It most certainly hasn’t; as we were reminded by the latest crop of A Level results showing that the gap between the number of boys and girls choosing physics and maths is not only large but growing.
Four out of five physics papers and two thirds of all maths papers were taken by boys, while three quarters of English papers were taken by girls. Once again the figures betrayed an apparent disconnection between girls and key sciences; most notably physics and computing.
Why should this be a problem? Surely people should follow their instincts and study what interests them. Surely everything balances out and individuals naturally play to their strengths in education and the jobs market.
That might be a reasonable argument but for the evidence showing that large numbers of girls who don’t take sciences at A level actually have a strong aptitude for these disciplines.
Many of them simply pull the plug on their progression in these fields due to a mixture of peer pressure, lack of confidence and plain old stereotyping; in other words factors totally unrelated to their natural preferences.
It’s a big issue for our economy.
Figures show that even girls who are performing well in subjects such as physics and computer sciences tend to drop these subjects after GCSE, or even earlier, because of perceived social pressures. In other words they’re embarrassed to be seen following a ‘boy’s’ subject.
However progressive we think we’ve become, somehow we’re still managing to communicate to both boys and girls from a very young age that certain pursuits are gender specific.
Even the latest Tesco ‘back to school’ TV advert tells us that males play football while females are artists, dancers and housewives.
This isn’t just a problem for the individuals concerned. It’s a big issue for our economy in an increasingly competitive world market, where advanced technological skills and technical innovation will mean the difference between long-term success and mediocrity.
Quite simply we can’t afford not to develop fully the technological and scientific talents of half the population just because we’re failing to challenge some cultural hangovers from the past.
As a women’s economic development charity Chwarae Teg is working with education at different age levels to tackle gender stereotyping and to make both girls and boys more comfortable in pursuing whatever subjects match their talents.
Parents have a crucial role to play in promoting science to girls.
This includes the Fair Foundations programme which helps teachers create classroom environments in which early years learners will naturally explore all activities without any gender bias.
Watch the Fair Foundations video on YouTube: Life Through A Gender Lens.
We also work with industry and sector skills councils to promote STEM subjects to girls at primary and secondary level, in particular recruiting ‘science champions,’ among primary teachers.
A new initiative which will be piloted in this school year involves former Silicon Valley engineer, Dan Bridge, taking his ‘craft computer’ project into schools to show girls in a very engaging way how a computer is built and how it works. Early tests have proved a hit with youngsters.
We need to support teachers in making sciences such as physics and computing more attractive and relevant to girls; linking them to everything things that we know are of interest to them.
But that’s only part of the equation. As the Institute for Physics correctly points out, parents have a crucial role to play in promoting science to girls and convincing them that these subjects are as much for them as for boys.
That includes challenging stereotypes, encouraging them to take an interest in science activities or programmes on television and pointing them towards female science role models; for example Dr Helen Czerski on BBC’s Science Club.
Employers in the technology sectors also need to play their part through their school industry links and by actively targeting girls for technical apprenticeships, which are becoming increasingly popular as routes into high-quality employment.
Ultimately Wales has set itself an objective to develop higher-value industries.
This can only be sustained if we have a steady flow of talented young people, well qualified in the relevant branches of science and technology.
To achieve that, we need to step up our efforts to nurture the natural abilities of our young women as well as our young men.